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Monday, July 28, 2008

Can we explain why (and should we care that) SCOTUS gets its first negative rating?

This short story from the folks at the ABA Journal,  headlined "Supreme Court Gets First Negative Approval Rating," has me thinking about the dynamics (and significance) of SCOTUS popularity.   Here are the latest SCOTUS polling numbers:

Only 39 percent of U.S. voters approve of the way the U.S. Supreme Court is handling its job, while 43 percent disapprove, the first negative approval rating for the court in five years of polling.

The court got its highest approval rating in May 2007, when 58 percent approved of the job being done by the court.  The Angus Reid Global Monitor noted the results.

In the latest survey, conducted by Quinnipiac University, 42 percent said the court is moving in the wrong direction while 33 percent said it is headed in the right direction.  Twenty-five percent said the court is too liberal, 31 percent said it is too conservative and 33 percent said it is about right.

For lots of reasons (including question-wording biases), I am wary of making much of the absolute numbers in poll data regarding legal issues.  But if the same question is being asked the same way, trends in this data may be worth watching.  And the trend in SCOTUS approve/disapprove numbers are quite dramatic:  as detailed here, in April 2007, a full 58% approved and only 27% disapproved of how the Supreme Court handles its job; only fifteen months later we get the current 39/43 split.

Perhaps the two most discussed end-of-term cases, Heller and Kennedy, can explain these polling data.  I suspect everyone could find something they did not like in these rulings, and that dislike may be most salient when lay persons respond to a poll question about SCOTUS job performance.

Of course, the broader question is whether these kinds of poll questions and results are of any value and significance.  I am not sure how I feel on this front, but I suspect that some staffers inside both presidential campaigns view these numbers as meaningful for some reason.

Posted by Douglas A. Berman on July 28, 2008 at 02:36 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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How about Ledbetter? or the trends Jeffrey Rosen talked about in his article, Supreme Court Inc.? To the extent this court was "elected," it was on social issues...but as Thomas Frank showed in What's the mattter with kansas," that's not exactly the top of the agenda for
powerful conservatives.

Posted by: Quabble | Jul 28, 2008 8:10:19 PM

Presidential and Congressional approval ratings are also at or near all-time lows. Even the SCOTUS isn't immune to such widespread dissatisfaction.

Posted by: C. Zorn | Jul 28, 2008 3:56:40 PM

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